The popular Palestinian militant Marwan Barghouti backed away from challenging for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority Friday night after days of speculation that he would run for the post left open by the death of Yasser Arafat.
The decision leaves the former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas as the clear frontrunner and avoids a damaging split within Fatah, the dominant Palestinian party.
Barghouti, who is in jail, ended the rumors following a four-hour meeting with an emissary sent by Abbas.
Palestinian cabinet minister Kadoura Fares travelled to an Israeli jail in the city of Beersheba armed with an appeal for Barghouti to abandon his campaign.
Fares told a news conference last night that Barghouti appreciated Abbas's gestures, which included a promise to hold long-overdue elections in Fatah next year.
"After a meeting of four hours, during which we debated this issue, Marwan Barghouti sends this message to the Palestinian people and its fighters ... He calls on the members of the movement to support the movement's candidate, Mahmoud Abbas," Fares said.
The Fatah party had already chosen Abbas as its candidate but Barghouti could have run as an independent, which might have fatally undermined his rival's campaign.
Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, is seen as representative of the generation that was brought up in the West Bank and Gaza and played a major role in the first intifada, which began in 1989.
Abbas is from the old school - typical of the exiled Palestinians who set up Fatah in the Gulf states and returned only after the Oslo agreement in 1994.
Barghouti has consistently been the second most popular leader in opinion polls, after Arafat and far ahead of Abbas.
Barghouti, 43, is charismatic while the 69-year-old Abbas, although widely respected, is not.
Barghouti's endorsement of his rival will be important in gaining the votes of the young and the support of militants.
An Israeli court found Barghouti guilty of complicity in five murders this year although he insisted he was a political, not military, leader.
Barghouti was the West Bank leader of Fatah when he was captured in the city of Ramallah by Israeli forces in April 2002. He has been in Israeli custody since.
Before the intifada, Barghouti maintained close contacts with Israeli peace activists but he became disillusioned when he felt that Israel was obstructing moves towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Israel has said that it will not release Barghouti, although some ministers have hinted it might be possible.
One such scenario could involve the US freeing Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a sentence for spying for Israel, and Egypt releasing Azzam Azzam, who was also jailed for spying for Israel.
Ahmad Ghnaim, a Palestinian minister and close friend of Barghouti, said the decision had been finely balanced.
"We are passing a critical time so we have to judge things carefully. It's not just a question of how much support he will get.
He's certainly the most popular leader. The question is whether it's the right decision."